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London gay travel guide: What to see and where to go for LGBTQ+

Simon Gage travel and lifestyle writer, and travel editor for Gay Times

If you can’t be LGBTQ in London, where can you be LGBTQ, for goodness sake? Gay London is the gay capital of Europe – official! - with the largest LGBTQ+ population and is somewhere you can be yourself, whichever letter you identify as or wherever you come from, pretty much anywhere in town (though, obviously, have your wits about you if you stray into local neighbourhoods... but you know that).

Gay bars and clubs in London

As far as gay neighbourhoods go, the obvious one is Soho. Right in the middle of town, it’s been home for trouble-makers since the brothels of the 18th century, probably even before then. An easy-to-get-around neighbourhood of basically four streets from Wardour in the west to Greek in the east. The way to remember the layout? We (Wardour) Don’t (Dean) word-beginning with F (Frith) Greeks (Greek). Very rude, highly untrue but very handy stumbling out of a bar on Old Compton Street.

Because Old Compton Street is the main thoroughfare, so busy at weekends that you might think it’s Gay Pride, even though it’s just Saturday night. And all of gay life is here when it comes to London gay bars: G-A-Y Bar for the young at heart (and those on a budget: pick your moment and the prices are delicious!), Comptons for your older gents in or out of denim/leather/plaid shirts, The Admiral Duncan for those who like a drag queen shouting over the top of their beer or The Duke of Wellington - affectionately known as The Welly - where you can stand outside, check out passing trade and watch the cast of Les Misérables out on a fag break opposite. Fag meaning cigarette in Britain, remember.

Up on Wardour is Freedom, more mixed, a little fancier; on Frith you have Circa, which has a nightclub spin-off called Circa Embankment down on *checks notes* The Embankment, while The Village is an old stalwart just around the corner from Rupert Street Bar both done out in the international gay style. Fun, buzzy but they’re never going to win any awards for interior decoration, if you know what we mean. Mind you, are any of them? It’s certainly not what we go out for. Oh and there are also gay stores like Clone Zone, Prowler and Regulation for all your clubwear/cheeky cards and books/fetishwear needs.

And while we’re on the subject of gay bars, it’s not specifically gay but the hottest seat in town if you like to watch the LGBTQ world go by is outside Café Boheme on the corner of Greek and the OCS (Old Compton Street). Oh and Balans – there are actually two of them on Old Compton Street - you might have guessed, are gay restaurants… and some days the little one is open 24 hours a day for those post-clubbing munchies. There’s even that rarest of things, a lesbian hangout – SheBar aka She Soho – more difficult to find than your average unicorn, on Old Compton Street, just around the corner from the smaller Ku Bar the bigger one (with outside terrace and everything!) being just over Shaftesbury Avenue in Chinatown. There have been some high-profile closures of LGBTQ spaces over recent years, but as you can see, it's still very much a going concern.

If you’re into your gay nightlife and plan on going out clubbing later and fancy Heaven down near Charing Cross Station – probably the most famous gay nightclub in Europe - or G-A-Y Late up near Tottenham Court Road, keep an eye out for the G-A-Y Bar flyer people on Old Compton Street, who can give you a wrist band that will mean a healthy discount.

For proper big-night-out gay clubbing, you’ll probably want to head to the gay parties in Vauxhall. Nothing worth writing about during the day (sorry shops and restaurants down there but you know it’s true), at night it’s where the big club nights happen, whether it’s something saucy at The Union (primarily Hard On and Sunday afternoon staple SBN) something late-night and crazy at Fire – but do check listings because they host non-LGBTQ nights as well - or something sillier at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern or The Eagle including Horse Meat Disco and the Duckie afternoon party. Walk further south towards Kennington and you’ll find The Cock, a fun bar with fun music for a nutty sort of crowd. Obviously check gay press/apps for the latest as it’s an ever-changing buffet of delights.

Edgier when it comes to gay nights out is The Glory, an alternative drag experience up near Dalston and clubs like Feel It at Omeara near London Bridge on a Friday and Adonis a cult queer party that moves about, usually from unlikely location to unlikely location. Again, check local listings for the latest.

Oh and if you’re out on that gay London scene, remember a lot of the Tubes run all night on Friday and Saturday, just so you can spend your taxi money on more drinks.

Theatre, comedy, art and culture

You don’t need us to tell you about the wealth of theatre that London has to offer. The West End – Shaftesbury Avenue, right by Soho, and adjoining streets – is rivalled only by Broadway with everything from superstar musicals like Les Misérables and Mary Poppins to Hollywood stars popping up in something clever to prove that they’re more than just a pretty face, everywhere from The Theatre Royal Haymarket to The National Theatre down on the Southbank.

For more edgy LGBTQ-themed cultural nights out, keep an eye on the listings for the Soho Theatre on Dean Street where drag and gender-questioning plays and comedy and music happens. The bar on the ground floor is not a bad place to hang out either.

The main gay film festival, Flare run by the British Film Institute mainly from its Southbank HQ the National Film Theatre, tends to be in March and includes an embarrassment of riches from around the world, from gritty LGBTQ documentaries to daft comedies. An absolute must, if just for the pre/post-film mingling in the bars down there.

London’s museums are world-class and world-famous, from The National Gallery through The Victoria & Albert Museum to The British Museum, everyone knows that. They’re usually free to enter and, especially around Pride month, often have queer tours and events. There’s even – and this is a fairly new addition to the museum world – an LGBTQ museum called Queer Britain up in the newly refreshed area of Kings Cross, which is more than worth a check out even if you’re just up for shopping and cocktails.

London’s best LGBTQ+ friendly hotels

As far as places to stay are concerned, if you want to be in the heart of gay London and not pay a small fortune, you can’t do better than Z Hotel Soho or Z Hotel Piccadilly, which may have very small rooms – some without the luxury of a window! – but are snazzy and smart and right where you want them to be. Even cheaper – and handy for King’s Cross and Soho, if you hop on a bus – is Generator London Hostel.

But if you have a little more cash to splash, how about Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street? Right on Seven Dials, the cutest little spot right between Soho and Covent Garden, it’s also within stumbling distance of those Soho gay bars. Trust us, you’ll be grateful, the state you get in!

Written by Simon Gage, a freelance travel and lifestyle writer, and travel editor for Gay Times

Simon Gage contributes to a range of national and consumer lifestyle publications including Metro, Elle, Attitude, and Yahoo! He is also co-travel editor at Gay Times. As well as working on entertainment features (having interviewed the likes of Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow), he has also worked on a range of campaigns for LGBTQ+ organisations and networks such as Stonewall and JAKE.

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